Tag Archives: book club

The Hidden Man – Robin Blake

I would never have chosen to read this book in a million years, but book club chose it, and so I dutifully read it! A mystery concerning 1700s Preston… yey.

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From the back of the book:

The year is 1742, and the people of Preston are looking forward to their ancient once-every-twenty-years festival of merriment and excess, the Preston Guild. But the prospect darkens as the town plunges into a financial crisis caused by the death of the pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo, shot behind the locked door of his office. Is it suicide? Coroner Titus Cragg suspect so, but Dr Luke Fidelis disagrees. To untangle the truth, Cragg must dig out the secrets of Pimbo’s personal life, learn the grim facts of the African slave trade, search for a missing civil was treasure, and deal with the machinations of his old enemy, Ephraim Grimshaw, now the town’s mayor. Cragg relies once again on the help and advice of his analytical friend, Fidelis; his astute wife, Elizabeth; and the contents of a well-stocked library.

I’ve already said this is not the type of book I would normally read. I don’t care for 1700s Preston finance at all, and I hear enough about the damned Guild living here. It’s also full of grumpy old dudes. Clearly, the Preston connection is why book club chose it, and I did enjoy the fact that that places and street were familiar – this hasn’t happened with many books I’ve read (in fact, I can only think of Michael Hurley’s The Loney that comes close). There’s a sweet map on the inside cover too:

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I found this book alright. I quite enjoyed it, and if the subject matter, or book type, is more your thing, you’d probably really like it. Some of the things I did like were finding out some of the history of this time period.

I liked the character of Fidelis the best. The younger doctor is a bit quirky, and utterly confident with it, and I did like this. The descriptions of how he eats meals methodically were joyous for me.

I also thoroughly enjoyed some of the northernness of the phrasings:

‘No,’ he declared with emphasis. ‘Folk like their gold and silver too much. Change it for paper? They’ll like as change a clog for a cloud.’

Poetry.

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Cragg’s wife is a clever, amusing woman. Throughout the novel she is reading a novel herself and this is a great little side story. The other women characters don’t come off so well, for example…

From her clothes she was evidently very poor but her poverty did not conceal the other notable fact about her: she was extremely pretty.

The two most noticeable things about her, however, were first that her face and figure were strikingly beautiful,

mmm yeh.

This book will probably well suit fans of historical mysteries, fans of Preston Guild, and people who love a bit of finance in their mysteries. I’m not wholly converted!

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The Circle – Dave Eggers

The Circle is about big corporations and data. Written in 2013, I think it would have been more shocking to read back then. Honestly too much of the events in the book seem like real life now.  It’s still a good read and a big fricken warning about how careless we (mostly) all are with our data and privacy.

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time left in book: 8hrs 10 mins. Yes it’s a big one!

This was a book club read and it was generally enjoyed, though a few people said they enjoyed the film more. I haven’t seen it yet, but will report back when I do. It’s such a rare statement to make about a book and a film, I will have to watch it!

So what is The Circle actually about? Recent graduate Mae Holland gets a very sought after job at a tech company. She loves the company, with all their social perks and on-site amenities. There are social clubs and you are expected to interact with your colleagues on social media as part of your job. How delightful! Clearly it very soon takes a very dark turn. You can predict the rest.

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I will finish this book and I have all the things I need to help. 

Her immediate supervisor was a man named Kevin, who served as the ostensible technology officer at the utility, but who, in a strange twist, happened to know nothing about technology.

We’ve all been there, right?

Also, The Circle gave me this quote:

some terrible sex-porn-witchcraft controversy?

and I’m giving you no context at all for it, but it doesn’t sound so terrible?

The Circle is a good read. It’s nearly 500 pages though, so I might just recommend you watch the film.

Book Review: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a nostalgia trip back to a childhood in the 1970s. Ten year olds Grace and Tilly have the long, hot, heatwave summer of 1976 ahead of them. They need a project and they decide to find God. They know God is ‘everywhere’ (and each time they say this, they gesture around themselves, waving their arms around).

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blue wall. 

They have decided to find God because Mrs Creasy, a neighbour, has gone missing. This provides the central mystery to this easy to read, nostalgic trip. We quickly get to know the cast of characters who live on the same close as Grace. They know the ins and outs of each others lives and have been a close community for a long time. Very quickly we learn that a *bad thing* happened 10 years previously. This involves child abduction, the ‘weirdo’ at number 11, a house fire, and a death.

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gold glittery shoes

The themes get quite dark, but it’s handled in a very light way, made easier by most of it being told from the perspective of children. There are some very funny exchanges between the ten year olds and the adults. There are some lovely descriptions and a lot of personification is used. I liked this, it gave it an unusual feel, but felt cosy at the same time.

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reading at lunchtime amongst the desk debris.

This was a book club read, and most people really, really enjoyed it. I think the people who go the nostalgia hit for the 1970s liked it the most. I’m not a child of the 1970s, but its close neighbour the 1980s, and lots of the nostalgia was still relevant to me. Payphones and sherbet dip. A local who doesn’t fit in, sexism, and roller skates! It’s a quite light book, though it does deal with dark themes, it still feels like a bit of a break from reading *difficult* books, and a welcome one 🙂 I breezed through all 450 pages in a few days.

Book review: Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a really quite long book about the 1840s Canadian murderess Grace Marks. She’s a real person, who was jailed for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, when she was 16. She is also thought to have murdered his lover, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s fictionalised version of this story, weaving the facts of the case with a constructed story of Grace and her life up to, and beyond the conviction.

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Reading at the bus stop on a very rainy night. 

I should point out that I quite enjoyed the story, but it’s definitely not really my sort of thing, and I wouldn’t have got through all 550 pages if it hadn’t been for a book club I go to. Having said that, most of the other people at book club absolutely loved it.

Margaret Atwood brilliantly builds up and creates the world that Grace inhabits. The detail about everything is rich and stunningly done. I never got bored of the descriptions it all helped put me right in Grace’s world. It has recently been made into a Netflix series and I think it will definitely be worth watching.

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Reading in my space pants. 

We meet Grace as a young girl in Ireland. Her family are poor, with lots of children and a feckless Father. They decide to begin a new life in America, and make the frankly horrendous journey over on a boat. During this trip, her Mother dies. Then Grace abandons her family after they settle in Canada, as a survival mechanism to get away from her abusive Father. From here she lives in as a house maid.

We follow Grace through several jobs, in different houses, until the terrible events that put her in jail. At this point she is still only sixteen years old. These recollections are told to a doctor, Simon Jenkins, who is studying Grace to try and make an assessment of her mind at the time of the crime. The whole book is centred around their meetings. I liked the character of Dr Jenkins, who is entirely fictionalised. While he tries to maintain a respectable, professional image to Grace, his personal life begins to break down. He’s under constant pressure from his family to settle down, and his letter exchanges with his Mother are excellent.

As one season’s crop of girls proceeds into engagement and marriage, younger ones keep sprouting up, like tulips in May. They are now so young in relation to Simon that he has trouble conversing with them; it’s like talking to a basketful of kittens.

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We learn about Grace’s friend, Mary Whitney, firstly through several quotes she uses to describe things in a very funny, but coarse way. She uses Mary’s quotes to say things she would never dare, as Grace is quite prudish. Mary is slightly older than Grace, and she assumes the big sister role that Grace so desperately needs. She teaches her the ways of the job and how to get along well in life. Later, we hear Grace’s story about Mary and learn a lot more about her. She is my favourite character, she has such spark.

Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn.

Grace’s story is interesting, but this book is a triumph of describing the domestic situation of 1840s Canada. There’s also a, quite Victorian, supernatural element to the story. I would recommend it of you are interested in this time, or a fan of historical fiction with a factual basis. Probably if none of those things really appeal, I would wait for the Netflix show (it looks really good! see the trailer below)

Book Review: The Seed Collectors – Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors is a magical book about complex family relationships and the seeking of enlightenment. The Gardener family are mostly botanists – we learn about five generations of them. Three members of one generation went missing during the search for a mysterious, deadly plant that is rumoured to be a short cut to achieving enlightenment.

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The Seed Collectors on Blackpool Prom.

Despite the whole enlightenment thing, which might not be your cup of tea (things like that generally aren’t really mine), it’s really a story of relationships. The Gardener’s could be generally thought of as rich, self-centred and interesting. Oh, and fairly obsessed with sex.

The cast of characters is a little overwhelming, but a few highlights are Beatrix: The oldest living Gardener. She likes investing in fashion brands and watching pornography on her computer. Her son, Augustus, who sadly doesn’t appear much.

The main characters are the children of Augustus and his generation. Charlie – ultra controlled and paleo loving, Clem – an acclaimed wildlife documentary maker. Their cousin Bryony – completely uncontrolled when it comes to eating, drinking and spending money, simultaneously devastated by her size. Another main character is Fleur – daughter of Briar Rose, one of the missing, and taken in by the family. She has worked for free learning how to run the hippy retreat in the family mansion. And don’t forget the Robin who lives in the garden of the mansion, he narrates a few chapters!

There are so many children, spouses, friends and colleagues, and the relationships are even more complex than you originally think. You get a family tree at the start of the book, and an updated one at the end. It was really useful because it took a while to figure out how this myriad of people were connected. There’s so many of them you only get a brief visit to some which seems a shame. I think you might have been able to lose some without much damage to the story and it might have made it less unwieldy.

Oleander’s funeral is the opening chapter of the book and some of the strange items inherited are key to the story of the mystical, mysterious plant the older Gardeners were looking for when they disappeared, presumed dead. Oleander is an older relative who runs the hippy retreat Mansion.

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I enjoyed The Seed Collectors as a bit of escapism. I liked going into this world of rich, selfish people who basically destroy their own lives and those around them by their awful behaviour! It’s not a difficult read, and it’s hilarious in many parts. There’s a short sex scene towards the end of the book that was so awful, it was funny. Awful because of the characters behaviour, not awfully written.

Interestingly, this was a book club choice and we met yesterday to discuss it. Only 2 of us, out of 12 or so, liked it! Many hated it so much they didn’t finish.

Have you read The Seed Collectors? What did you think?

 

Book review: Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Oh my god. I just don’t give a shit about the pheasant chicks, or the brambles in the allotment, or the hawthorn bush, or the fieldfares in the meadow. Reservoir 13 has 13 chapters, each spanning a year in the life of a Peak District village. It opens with the disappearance of a 13 year old visitor to the village, Becky, or Bex, or Rebecca. She is lost on the moors and no trace of her is found.

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The disappearance is revisited fairly often in the following chapters. A lot of them ending with a statement about her disappearance. There is repetition between the 13 chapters as the girl is still missing, her whereabouts unknown, but life still has to move forward.

We slowly get to know a lot of characters in the village. Some move on, some move in. Relationships start, and relationships end. We get snippets of village life. After around 8 years worth of tiny fragments of village life I started getting who everyone was. They often do the same things year after year because that’s what people do.

Almost every other sentence is a statement about what the natural world is doing at that time of year. Good god, it was tedious.

At first I wondered if I wasn’t enjoying it because I was listening to an audio book version of it. I’ve never really done audio books (except the Harry Potter series about 10 years ago when I had a particularly long commute to work) but the kindle version and paper book versions were really expensive, so I’ve got an audible trial. I needed to read it this week because it’s my book club read and we are meeting this week (review will be published as we meet!). I’m now really glad I didn’t read this myself because looking at some reviews, there are hardly any paragraphs and speech isn’t distinguished from any other text?!

Other reviews of Reservoir 13 are full of praise. I just can’t join in. I’m so glad it’s over and feel a bit mad that I wasted my time on it. Perhaps I’m supposed to see something deeper. The reviews would have you believe that you really should. Well, I obviously like my fiction to be upfront and interesting at face value. I don’t want hidden depth behind a boring story.

I need to add in something positive… at least I know what a fieldfare is now.

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**spoiler alert**

 

You don’t even find out what happened to the girl. There is no story, no protagonist, nothing. It’s a monotonous, repetitive soap opera about some ordinary village folk who basically have the most depressing lives.

Urghhh

Book Review: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a while. I’ve heard GREAT things about it. I was delighted to find out it’s the next book for a book club I’ve recently joined. As I started the book, I realised that I’ve read one of her books before… for another book club… and *whispers* I didn’t really like it. And that’s stating it very mildly.  Oh no I thought, no… don’t be the same. Don’t be the same. Don’t be the same. And happily, it isn’t.

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I enjoyed The Essex Serpent. It’s about friendship, love, surgery, odd characters, social housing, religion, superstition, small towns, cities, being female, domestic abuse, sea creatures, illness, and fossils, and everything in between. Mostly it’s a book that I struggled to place in time and this is part of its point. The main character is Cora Seabourne, a well off, recently widowed woman. She moves from London and get caught up in a sleepy Blackwater Estuary village and its panic over recent sightings of a monster in the sea, the so called Essex serpent. Cora’s link to the town is the local vicar, William Ransome. There’s a wide range of other characters, including Cora’s socially conscious companion Martha, Her husband’s surgeon, Luke Garrett. There’s Luke’s rich friend. There’s Cora, Will and Luke’s friends. There’s some strange children. There’s a poor Londoner and the man who is trying to kill him. I could go on… but the story successfully links them all and draws you in.

I started off finding it a bit strange that the main female characters are supposedly younger than me, but act like much older women. If Cora met her husband 17, I think somewhere she mentions having been with him for 15 years, and she has an 11 year old son, so she’s 32!?!? She acts like she’s 60. I couldn’t reconcile the characters behaviour with the age they supposedly are. She acts like a Victorian grandma. She acts… Victorian. Oh… is she Victorian?  I honestly got to 53% of the way through before I realised the book is set over 100 year ago! This is a triumph as far as I’m concerned. The characters could so easily just be eccentric modern people. Strange ones with no phones, who like the outdoors. There are department stores, cabs, trains, modern hospitals and surgery. The people like science, and geology, and engineering. It is all consistent with Victorian England, but not the one that comes to mind when I think about Victorian times. In the picture I have in my mind it is ‘a long way in the past’ and ‘very different to today’, but actually it isn’t that much different, with the obvious absence of most modern technology. Chuck away your iPhone and you could practically be back there!

I had a bit of an issue with some character names. The surgeon is described as short and has the nickname the Imp. So now he’s Tyrion Lannister in my mind, and Cora is from Downton Abby. I don’t think these are too far from the character descriptions, but it was a bit distracting.

The plot is rich, and the characters are convincing and well rounded – they all seem like actual people in my mind. I am not going to try and describe the plot beyond what I’ve already written. It has quite a large scope in themes, though the story is geographically small. I think you might get even more out of The Essex Serpent if you are familiar with it’s very real setting. I felt this when I read The Loney, as this is set near to where I live. I am familiar with London, but the Blackwater estuary, and Colchester, I am not familiar with.

Overall, the story is good and the characters great, though they really could do with having at bit more fun every now and then. The surprising fact that it is set in Victorian times while seeming modern, and the link this gives you with those usually far off seeming times, is brilliant.